On Thursday, Miss Universe Canada contestant Tiffany Munro wedged a big Miu Miu mule into her mouth while trying to encourage self-awareness about body image amongst some Oshawa high-school students. The pageant, she blurted out, didn’t want its competitors to look “like some little African child with the ribs going on.” Ouch. The crowd reacted with derision and anger while pageant rival Solange Tuyishime, who fled the Rwandan genocide as a child, crumbled in anguish. What might be easy to overlook is that Miss Tuyishime appears to know exactly who is to blame for Miss Munro’s gaffe, and it’s not (primarily) Miss Munro. It’s the media environment in which she was raised.
“I was hurt” by the reference to “stereotypical images they show on TV,” [Tuyishime] said in an interview. “It’s very sad that in 2010 when we make references to the poor, we think of African children, because poverty is everywhere.”
That’s obviously a bit of a stretch—if you’re looking for legitimately intense absolute poverty, Africa really would be the right place to start—but it’s true that we have all been deliberately stupefied by decades of development-industry marketing that hardly ever presents Africans as anything but fly-gnawed, pellagrous wraiths. Munro’s comment, certainly not meant to harm or demean anybody, reminds any young African who hears it that they are further decades away, perhaps generations, from persuading Westerners to cast off the accumulated horrors of do-gooder propaganda—all of it constructed by people who, collectively, could hardly have done more net harm to Africa if they were the inventors of HIV—and to see them as something other than victims. You’d get upset too.
But maybe we’re building a different, more rationalist and critical kind of do-gooder these days. Check out this little experiment by Canadian engineer Duncan McNicholl, who asks the radical question “What happens when we ask Africans how they want to be depicted in Western media?” (þ: Kottke)